A boy, his face out of focus, is walking toward you. He holds a bucket, and there is a slight spring in his steps. In the foreground, clothes hang above the frame, like obstacles preventing you from looking. And this boy, where is he coming from? Where is he going to? Why does he seem happy even though he is surrounded by heaps of trash and bush? If you have ever lived in Lagos, Nigeria, then you will know that these clothes are most likely his school uniform that he had just washed and spread out to dry, and that his happy strides are from finishing the day’s laundry. Everything — the boy, the heap of trash, the bush — is out of focus, and what is truly seen are the clothes that frame his life.
This scene from “Coming Close” by Logo Oluwamuyiwa, one of seven artists in the ongoing “New Photography 2023” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, embodies the springing zigzag of Lagos presented in a delicious and nuanced manner through the show. Although “New Photography 2023” is the 28th edition in MoMA’s well-known series since its inauguration in 1985, it is the first group show in the museum’s history featuring the work of living West African photographers. This turn toward a more global outlook is already bearing interesting fruits as the museum acquires a selection of works by Kelani Abass, Abraham Oghobase and Akinbode Akinbiyi — three of the photographers in the exhibition. “It has been a true honor to bring these works into the collection,” says Oluremi C. Onabanjo, an associate curator at MoMA who organized the show, which encompasses a broad range of styles and textures, colors and gestures, working through street photography, documentary, and abstraction, landing in Yagazie Emezi’s photojournalistic images of the October 2020 #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, when young people called for ending police brutality and disbanding the unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
In 2014, one year after he began his “Monochrome Lagos” series, from which his works in the show were selected, Oluwamuyiwa, 23 at the time, began visiting the Center for Contemporary Arts Lagos — an independent nonprofit art organization founded in 2007 by the Nigerian curator Bisi Silva — where he discovered the work of the street photographers Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand.
“They helped me develop a sense of kinship,” Oluwamuyiwa said by phone, “and I became confident that photographing was a valid way to understand a city.” His interpretations of Lagos are gritty and fast paced, matching the environment in which he works, yet he manages to elucidate things that can only be apparent to someone looking closely. In such moments, as in “Boss and Assistant” where two men in a Danfo (the rundown yellow minibuses used for public transport) seem to be whispering to each other, or in “Hazy II,” where light pours from under the Third Mainland Bridge onto two figures standing in a canoe, the images transcend their sharp surfaces and acquire a misty luster; grittiness gives way to haziness, and the private anxieties of Lagos life become heightened.
A quick history of Lagos: Indigenously peopled by the Awori, it was once a military outpost for the ancient Benin Kingdom, a slave trading port for the Portuguese, who named it after their own city, and eventually an entry point for British colonialism into Nigeria.
The vestiges of these histories, now mostly disappeared, subsist in dilapidated British colonial buildings and houses with Cuban-Brazilian type architecture built by formerly enslaved people who returned to Nigeria in the late 19th century. As part of her series “The Way of Life,” in 2015 Amanda Iheme began photographing the Casa de Fernandez, one of the colonial-era buildings reported to have housed slaves in the 1840s. Its ownership had passed down from Afro-Brazilians to auctioneers to a Yoruba owner who turned it into a bar, and down to the colonial government, which declared it a monument and used it as a post office. Tied up amid power cables from the streets, with aged beams and railings, the building’s pink sheen — a patina of its glory days — has mostly peeled off, revealing brown bricks underneath, a long march toward an impending death.
Iheme, in contrast to Oluwamuyiwa, and perhaps due to her own training as a psychotherapist, makes pictures that are soft toned and slow, as if listening for sound, but heavy and considered, as if she were plucking each frame from the jaws of oblivion. Iheme did literally save a stone from the rubble of the Casa de Fernandez when it was demolished without explanation by the government in 2016. Items in other photos include transport tickets, “Secret” government files, and passports she salvaged from the floors of a second ruinous building that used to house the Federal Ministry of Justice.
Akinbode Akinbiyi’s photographs — although not as directly — carry on this inspection of disappeared histories that lurk around Lagos, hunted by ghosts of what were national events. When one looks at his pictures of Bar Beach, on Victoria Island and selected from a series that the 76-year-old photographer started in 1982, it is impossible to discern that public executions of coup plotters and armed robbers, witnessed by thousands of Lagosians, happened here. Instead, focusing on the bustle that came to be the tedium of life at Bar Beach after the violent ’70s, Akinbiyi devises a warm black and white palette — resisting digital cameras and sticking only with lenses ground by hand — that turns sand and water into the same color, so that a praying woman garbed in white, walking away from a set of empty chairs toward the edge of the frame, her small Bible slightly raised, seems to be dividing the sea with her feet. In the second-floor galleries, the photographs are hung with what looks like office clips — a poignant technique that suggests that they can be easily rolled off, the same way the world of Bar Beach was folded away when the government cordoned off the seashore from the public, reclaimed the land, and turned it into an expensive and garish “Atlantic City.”
Although this is a photography exhibition, there are sudden, extraordinary turns, starting with Kelani Abass’s work, when the lines between photography, sculpture and painting blur. Transposing 1960s-era photographs from his family archives into wooden letterpress type-cases, from when his father ran a letterpress printing company, Abass uses the personal archive to encase history in a way that complements the marvelously grassy, melancholic portraits by Karl Ohiri, who collected and developed various discarded negatives from photo studios in Lagos that had closed or turned to digital photography. The installation of Abass’s large family journal detailing personal philosophy, customs and traditions — some in Yoruba — looks less out of place because of Abass’s non-obtrusive and aged letterpress cases. (Ohiri’s “Skate-board” doesn’t work quite as well because the item, which transports a disabled Lagosian through the crowded streets, followed by the filmmaker, is a little bit difficult to make out.)
In the center of the gallery are Abraham Oghobase’s layered manual and digital manipulations of photography on texts (records from Nigeria’s colonial period) providing an excellent backbone for the exhibition while stretching the limits of the medium.
This impressive dance with materiality in the show probably comes to a peak in Oluwamuyiwa’s posters, meant to be taken away by visitors. The first thing tourists in Lagos might notice are the multitude of roadside stalls where traders selling similar items cluster together as if sheer repetition is enough to interest any passer-by, and where items for sale are stacked publicly for easy dispersal, in the spirit of a city where everything must move swiftly because there is not even enough “time to check time,” as they say in Lagos. The posters are an invitation into the bumbling spirit of Lagos, mirrored by Oluwamuyiwa’s photographs — of sleeping mattresses layered on each other (“Repose Assistants”) and minibuses parked together (“Danfo Roofs”).
“New Photography 2023” makes a compelling case for the turn of the series toward a global outlook focused on a city. There is harmony in the exhibition, allowing for experimentations on what a photography show might be when nuance is embraced. With a common anchor, it demonstrates how the works of seven individuals, properly meshed, might form a wondrous introduction for a traveling audience. The choice of Lagos as a starting point is a curious but astute one. Situated in a country currently gaining cultural capital for its Afrobeats music and fast-rising art scene, Lagos with its overwhelming pace is not particularly friendly to foreigners; it is a city that requires patience, work, and grit to love, and perhaps a bit of bravery. This is the point of the show: that astounding art demands and is worth the extra effort.
Through Sept. 16, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street; 212-708-9400; moma.org.
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